Free Speech

Trump's Social Media Executive Order Would Let Unelected Bureaucrats Police Online Speech

It would essentially be a Fairness Doctrine for the internet.

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President Donald Trump is reportedly drafting an executive order to address allegations of bias at tech companies, which he says have unduly targeted conservatives. Although ostensibly offered in service of free speech, the order would almost certainly increase censorship instead.

The measure is far from concrete and "has already taken many different forms," Politico reports. But the most recent version, obtained by CNN, would instruct the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission to verify that social media platforms operate with political neutrality when they moderate content. If they fail to do so, the platforms could be stripped of the protections afforded under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

As it currently stands, that rule shields social media companies from certain criminal and civil liabilities surrounding the millions of posts that third parties publish on their sites every day. Revoking those protections would not encourage the free flow of content online. It would hamper it, as moderators would inevitably move toward cracking down on any potentially defamatory post.

A great deal of misunderstanding around Section 230 continues to proliferate. Tech company critics—spearheaded by Sens. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R–Texas)—accuse social media sites of breaching the law when they remove content they deem inflammatory. Liability protections are only legally afforded if sites act neutrally, right?

Wrong. The law explicitly allows platforms to moderate content, stipulating that they may do so without being held accountable for every user post. Indeed, that's part of the point of the law. While implicitly acknowledging the value of open dialogue online, it concedes that, to make the internet a more tolerable place, private companies should be free to scrub posts that they feel cross a line. In other words, tech platforms are not removing content in spite of Section 230; they're allowed to do it because of Section 230.

It is especially ironic that conservatives would take up this cause after spending years warning about the evils of the Fairness Doctrine. That rule, enforced from the 1940s through the '80s, allowed the Federal Communications Commission to penalize broadcasters for being unbalanced. In theory, the doctrine was supposed to expand the range of views heard on TV and radio. Yet in practice, politicians and pressure groups used it to harass stations that aired opinions they disliked, and many stations got more skittish about airing controversial opinions at all.

The death of the Fairness Doctrine is directly related to the rise of right-wing talk radio, and conservatives have spent decades warning that the Democrats would like to bring the law back. But now the tables have turned, and it's conservatives who are pushing for what would essentially be a Fairness Doctrine for the internet.